Flexible packaging is the fastest-growing segment within the US packaging industry and around the world, according to the Flexible Packaging Association (FPA). The entire segment is valued at $30.9 billion, showing a 2.6 percent increase between 2016 and 2017, and growth is projected for nearly all end-user markets—from beverages and pet food to personal care, medical and pharmaceutical and consumer products.
But even as the flexible packaging market continues to expand, these packaging materials, plastics among them, have gained a reputation and are often linked to litter and marine debris, rather than being compared to more recyclable packaging options. With the environment and sustainability ranking high among consumers—and especially millennials—as issues they value highly—even as highly as convenience—when voicing their preference for packaging, this perception has to change.
Furthermore, according to an Avery Dennison study, consumers are likely to pay more for packaging they consider functional and fitting their lifestyles—and this includes sustainability.
Communicating Sustainability Benefits
The challenge is that a disconnect exists between brand owners and consumers (60 percent vs. 84 percent) regarding the importance of sustainability in flexible packaging. Even though most of today’s flexible packaging is not recyclable, according to the FPA, an opportunity exists for brand owners to increase awareness of flexible packaging’s sustainability, including its reduced carbon footprint.
The following flexible packaging facts can help converters and brand owners elevate the sustainability conversation when communicating with consumers.
Less Energy & Fewer Natural Resources
When looking at the total life cycle of flexible packaging, its sustainability becomes evident. Flexible packaging requires less material overall, making it a more environmentally friendly option than materials such as glass and rigid PET. Two-and-one-half pounds of flexible packaging material, for example, is required to pack 100 pounds of beverage, compared to 84 pounds of glass required to pack the same volume.
Flexible packaging also uses fewer resources during the production process, including water and fossil fuel. Consider that a steel can used to package coffee requires 1,605 percent more water than a stand-up flexible pouch. In addition, a rigid pail for packaging cat litter uses more than 1,429 percent more fossil fuel than a flexible bag.
The fact that fewer trucks and pallets are required to transport and store flexible packaging further reduces energy consumption and the use of other valuable natural resources.
Lower CO2 Emissions
A packaging system’s carbon footprint includes the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases (GHG) emitted during the system’s life cycle, including manufacturing, transportation and storage, the use and reuse phases, and end-of-life disposal.
Flexible packaging requires less transportation and storage space than other packaging options, reducing fuel consumption and CO2 emissions. Plastic packaging facilitates weight savings of more than 78 percent compared to alternative packaging materials. And flexible pouches require 4 percent less cargo space than glass containers when used for the same amount of food.
In addition, 30 plastic bottles require about the same amount of storage and shipping space as 840 pouches with spouts. One truckload of flat pouches is equal to 15 to 25 truckloads of empty rigid containers. These types of space-saving advantages help companies address issues such as truck driver shortages while reducing vehicle maintenance and cutting total shipping and receiving costs.
Higher Product-to-Package Ratio
Transportation space is costly, as companies ship products across the US and/or around the world. Flexible packaging offers retailers and others the opportunity to reduce their product-to-package ratio—and their costs—as part of their commitment to sustainability.
Flexible packaging offers a higher product-to-package ratio for less resource consumption and reduced total waste. A single-serve juice pouch exemplified efficient use of packaging and offers a 97:3 product-to-packaging ratio, according to the FPA.
Longer Shelf Life
A longer shelf life for food products saves consumers money while decreasing waste and global greenhouse gases. Many food manufacturers and grocery retailers are choosing flexible packaging to gain consumer favor and decrease in-store costs.
Placing bananas, which are typically sold loose, in perforated polyethylene bags increased product shelf life from 15 days for unpackaged product to 30 days for bananas sold in bags. Perforated bags for grapes, sold loose in the past, resulted in a 20 percent reduction of in-store waste.
This translates to added value for consumers and retailers, and reduces product waste that ends up going into landfills.
Speaking of Landfills…
Flexible packaging requires less landfill space than other packaging options and comprises only 4 percent of the packaging material in landfills. The packaging efficiency for flexible pouches, for example, is nearly double that of a plastic container, with half the amount of packaging required for the same amount of product. To place this in perspective, two 1.47-L. plastic refill bottles require the same amount of space in a landfill as 107 used 828-mL. flexible refill pouches with spouts.
A steel coffee can—even with a 71 percent recycle rate—will result in approximately four times as much material becoming landfilled waste versus a stand-up flexible pouch. The rate of recycling for the steel can would need to increase to 93 percent and the LDPE lid must increase from 21 percent to 75 percent for the steel coffee container to have the same amount of landfilled materials as the stand-up flexible pouch.
Packaging Innovations in Development
All good packaging reduces its carbon footprint by decreasing waste and increasing shelf life. Today’s flexible packaging products meet these criteria, as they use fewer resources while containing the most product with the least amount of packaging, resulting in less energy consumption during production, lower GHG emissions and reduced storage and transportation space compared to other types of packaging. Flexible packaging also requires less landfill space for disposal compared to other packaging materials such as glass and steel. Still, most of today’s flexible packaging cannot be recycled as the materials cannot be separated. This is about to change as products become available with all layers made from recyclable polyethylene material.
Other innovations will include minimal air space around products for space savings and lower shipping costs. Packaging will continue to extend the shelf life of food products, resulting in less GHG and methane in landfills caused by food waste. Compostable flexible packaging will be used in food service areas, so that packaging contaminated with food can be composted with food waste.
In the meantime, film manufacturers are working to advance the sustainability of flexible packaging with thinner films that have the same barrier strength and allow the same laminations as present films. Sealant films are more robust and able to be used at lower temperatures during the packaging process for greater efficiency.
While good news is on the horizon for more sustainable flexible packaging, the challenge is to educate consumers about the sustainable advantages flexible packaging products offer today, including a lower carbon footprint, easy storage, extended shelf life and less waste. With recyclability so important to consumers and especially millennials, they must be informed about which flexible packaging materials can be recycled and the availability of store drop-off programs such as WRAP, Bag-2-Bag and Terra Cotta.
The flexible packaging industry must continue to address consumer concerns by identifying end-of-life options and recycling alternatives for multi-material laminated packaging. Consumer education through ads and other social media avenues could be a starting place to get directly to the shoppers. In addition, the industry must promote the development of a waste management infrastructure to address the marine debris and litter issues that have tarnished plastic and other packaging’s reputation.
Consumers continue to drive the packaging industry, and the flexible packaging segment must recognize and respond to consumer demands regarding sustainability. This will be key to achieving growth potential now and in the future.
About the Author: Cindy Collins is product manager, flexible packaging at Avery Dennison.